By Scott Dorward
Two Thousand Maniacs! (USA, 1964)
“…something’s very wrong in this town.”
Herschell Gordon Lewis, the godfather of gore, is still a major hole in my horror viewing. Until 2014’s October Horror Movie Challenge, I’d never seen any of his films. Back then, I reviewed Blood Feast and decided I needed to watch more of his work. Well, it’s taken me six years, but here we are with Two Thousand Maniacs!
In an unnamed state in the American South, a couple of country yokel stereotypes place diversion signs on a rural road, redirecting three cars with number plates from northern states. These unlucky travellers find themselves in Pleasant Valley, a rural town with a population of two thousand. Hey, I wonder if that relates to the title of the film…
Crowds gather to greet the new arrivals. The mayor tells them that Pleasant Valley is throwing a centennial celebration, although he is vague on the details of what they are commemorating. All six of the new arrivals will be guests of honour for the celebrations.
Of course, this wouldn’t be much of a horror film if everything was what it appears to be. Soon enough, the locals start murdering their visitors in a variety of charmingly rustic ways. But why are they doing this? Will any of their victims escape? And why doesn’t Pleasant Valley appear on any local maps?
It’s funny how Two Thousand Maniacs! is almost as provocative 56 years on, for reasons that should have fallen into history long ago. The sight of masses of angry people waving Confederate flags is almost as frightening today as it was in the peak of the US civil rights movement, when this film was made. And yet this is not a film about race. All the characters are white and the division between them is more rooted in history than simple bigotry.
While there is no racism in Two Thousand Maniacs!, some of the stereotypes it employs are still pretty jarring. The portrayal of dim-witted, gurning Southern yokels feels strangely meanspirited. Even though this is obviously played for laughs, I found it grating enough that it quite put me off. Of course, if the characters had been played straight, this would have been a very different film. I just wonder if it might have been possible to find the comedy in them without punching down so much.
There are some odd parallels between Two Thousand Maniacs! and The Wicker Man. While I can’t imagine Two Thousand Maniacs! was an influence on Anthony Shaffer, it’s striking how they both involve remote rural communities luring outsiders into their midst through deception, treating them as honoured guests, and then sacrificing them horribly. Each film is even punctuated by diegetic songs by local troubadours.
Two Thousand Maniacs! is a very uneven film. Some of the murderous set-pieces are imaginative and grotesquely funny. The more expository scenes, however, are a slog. This isn’t helped by the awful sound; in some smaller rooms, the clacking of the camera almost drowns out the dialogue, making it difficult to follow what is going on.
Herschell Gordon Lewis famously went from making nudie films to largely inventing the gore subgenre. The direction here certainly feels like it could have come from an old-fashioned porno. There are plenty of static, talky scenes with little camera movement. The acting is either wooden or wildly over the top. When the dialogue isn’t aiming for comedy, it is dully functional. But, let’s face it, people don’t watch films like this for their sparkling repartee.
The horror aspects of Two Thousand Maniacs! still stand up fairly well. This isn’t a scary film, however, but one that revels in Grand Guignol gore. Limbs are hacked off, bodies are torn apart, human flesh is barbecued, and someone is crushed with a very large rock. While the make-up effects are a bit hokey by today’s standards, they’re still pleasingly gruesome. The only really laughable effect is when one of the locals is sucked down by the least convincing quicksand in cinematic history.
And, ultimately, it seems unfair to compare Two Thousand Maniacs! to more modern or higher-budget films. This is a gleefully cheap and nasty piece of horror history, and fans will still find plenty to enjoy about it. Just maybe don’t go back for a second helping of that barbecue.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- 1 – Baskin (2015)
- 2 – The Bar (2017)
- 3 – The Editor (2014)
- 4 – The Beach House (2019)
- 5 – The Mummy (1959)
- 6 – The Wind (2020)
- 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
- 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
- 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
- 10 – Patrick (1978)
- 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
- 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
- 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
- 14 – The Hallow (2015)
- 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
- 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
- 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
- 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
- 19 – The Battery (2012)
- 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
- 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
- 22 – Evolution (2015)
- 23 – The Mortuary Collection (2019)
- 24 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
- 25 – The Dead Center (2018)
- 26 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)
- 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
- 28 – Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
- 29 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
- 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
- 31 – In Fabric (2018)
Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!